The group’s relatively minor engagement in the regulatory public-comment process since last year has angered at least one marijuana regulator and some advocates who worked to mold regulations to balance public health, safety, and consumer access.
“If any of the clinicians or scientists asking for ‘indefinite delays’ would like to move from their goal of reversing the will of voters, legislators, and regulators to actually influencing the policy that is being made as we speak, they are welcome to,” cannabis Commissioner Shaleen Title said.
The group behind the statement said it wanted to bring together clinicians’ voices for policy makers to hear arguments that oppose those of the well-financed industry.
“We’re up against a giant lobby that wants to advance sales and promotion of a dangerous, potentially addictive drug that’s incredibly harmful to people under the age of 25,” said Heidi Heilman, president of the Massachusetts Prevention Alliance.
The group accused the state’s social equity program of unfairly targeting minority neighborhoods for more pot shops. But cities and towns determine where stores are allowed to open — not the state. The social equity program aims to redress the harms of the war on drugs by helping people from areas with high rates of marijuana arrests start their own pot businesses.
The statement “is based on flawed assumptions and a fundamental misunderstanding of the commission’s social equity program,” said Title. She said the commission has recommended that municipalities not concentrate retail outlets in any area, particularly low-income ones.
Commissioner Jennifer Flanagan, the public health appointee, said she agreed with the group’s concerns about potency levels and serving sizes. The statement, she said, seemed to validate the state’s work, as many actions it called for are already in place, such as tracking public health outcomes, launching awareness campaigns, and not allowing cannabis companies to use cartoon character images or sponsor sports events.
“This industry and the way we came about was a ballot question, so we have to work with that,” Flanagan said. “Simply opening dispensaries doesn’t coincide with public health initiatives, but we’re mandated to do that, so it’s a balancing act.”
The group also called for combining the medical and recreational marijuana programs unless medical marijuana is “regulated like medicine,” though it doesn’t specify what that means.
Eliminating the medical program would greatly hurt patients, said Nichole Snow, executive director of the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance.
“This is not only too little, too late,” Snow said, “it puts on full display that the Massachusetts medical community does not understand the wider policy decisions that were made by the Legislature and the commission in their absence … in the past three years.”
Jane Allen, a local public health researcher at RTI International, said the group’s call for a public campaign about marijuana’s links to mental illness may be misguided, as governments first need to establish credibility with cannabis consumers through a neutral tone. She said she advised the state last year to first educate people about the law and safe practices related to locking up products and starting low and slow with edibles.
“Governments, historically being anti-marijuana, don’t have much credibility in this space with consumers,” Allen said. “You need to build your authority first through a non-biased, non-judgemental campaign that telegraphs to people that we’re in a different space now. I suggested they wait to tackle other, more complex issues until after they built that credibility.”